Educated by Tara Westover

‘I’d never learned how to talk to people who weren’t like us – people who went to school and visited the doctor. Who weren’t preparing, every day, for the End of the World’.

There are many things I love about being a singer-songwriter – notably the rush of creativity when a new song comes, or the buzz after a concert that goes particularly well. But it also means that you meet some fascinating people.

I first met Tara Westover at our local music club in CB2, Cambridge, some five years ago, when she was completing her PhD at the university – shortly after, I now realise, one of the most difficult periods of her life. She rather unwisely offered to sing harmonies on some of my songs, an offer I could hardly refuse as she has one of the finest voices I have had the privilege to work with. We have since played many gigs together, and she has collaborated on my last two albums.

In quiet times during rehearsals, or on the way to or from concerts, she would tell me many tales from her astonishing and highly unusual childhood – growing up in a Mormon community in Idaho, in a survivalist family dominated by a charismatic but flawed father who spent his time – when not placing the family in mortal danger in his scrapyard – preparing for the end of the world.

But this could hardly prepare me for reading her remarkable memoir, Educated, published on February 20th by Hutchinson (in the UK – Random House in the US). The first part of the book describes Tara’s childhood and adolescence in the family home nestled under the mountain they called the Princess. To describe the family as ‘survivalist’ is somewhat misleading, as how Tara and her siblings survived their childhood is itself a miracle , confronted as they were by a succession of car crashes and workplace accidents, a refusal to counter any healthcare or medication beyond mother’s herbal remedies, a violent brother and non-existent ‘home schooling’.

There is one particularly stark moment when Tara finds her brother lying on the road side following a motorbike crash. He has suffered his third major head wound (the first two have left him a changed person), but when she phones her father he tells her to bring him home so that their mother can administer a few herbs. It’s an odd world where teenage rebellion takes the form of driving your brother to hospital.

It would be easy to conclude that Tara paints a bleak picture of her family. In fact she remains remarkably honest throughout. She is still able to talk of her love for her parents, to capture the wild beauty of her childhood home, and to paint a portrait of her father that is tremendously human, where his humour, his enthusiasm and his pride in Tara’s singing shine through his probably bi-polar delusions and paranoia. In the end she likens him to Don Quixote, a ‘zealous knight’ tilting at windmills, to whose warnings of doom ‘no one listened. They went about their lives in the summer sun.’

The second and third parts of the book describe the process through which Tara found her way into education, sought to come to terms with the wider world, and eventually gained a doctorate from Cambridge University. It’s a journey of both remarkable achievement but also some personal cost. At each step along the way she has faced a regular ‘twitch upon the thread’, as Waugh put it, from her home and family.

We all bear the scars of growing up, and spend much of our adult lives coming to terms with them. Educated is often a tough read, and it was painful to hear a good friend describe with such honesty how she responded to her brother’s abuse, her parents’ rejection, or the resulting family schism. It is also very moving indeed.

But above all, it’s a tremendous read and Tara has a real talent as a story teller – I found it very hard to put down. Here is a link to Tara’s website. You can order Educated from Heffers/Blackwells or, if you must, from Amazon.

Here are Tara and I performing Thessalonika at Cambridge Folk Club:

The photo of Tara was taken by Paul Stuart.

Side by side

Side by side

The first single – Side by side – from my forthcoming album is now available. It describes a journey from Paris to London and is my small contribution to the debate about Europe, and a plea for tolerance and diversity. Rhys Wilson arranged and produced the song, and delightfully so. Here’s the video of the song:

It was  filmed in >and around St Pancras station, Gare du nord, Gare de l’est and Gare de Lyon. I’m grateful to the SNCF and St Pancras for the publicly available pianos – the grand at the Gare de Lyon is especially wonderful. And I’m even more grateful to the people of Paris and London for going around their daily travels and inadvertently (and in one lovely moment a the end of Verse 1, advertently) participating in the film, and for proving that what makes us different makes us shine. If you like and approve of it, and are into social media, please do share it. I still hope it’s not too late to change people’s minds.

If you’d like to download the song, it’s available here:

And as it’s that time of year, here are my musical highlights from the last twelve months:

  • My favourite album of the year, by some distance, has been Planetarium, a collaboration from Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister. It’s somewhere out there and takes a few listens but we love it. You can hear some samples on their website. I also rather like the album ‘Conflats’ by Outlines. I’m still trying to get the hang of The National’s ‘Sleep well beast’ and Benjamin Clementine’s ‘I tell a fly’ but I think both will be worth the effort.
  • My favourite concert of the year was some ‘flamenco experimental’ from Rosalia and Raul Refree in Girona. Their album, Los Angeles, is remarkable. You can watch them playing ‘Catalina’ in front of Guernica.

I’d like to wish you a very happy Christmas, and all the best for 2018. Thankyou all for your continued support.

The story of Heroes of the floes

It was a friend who worked for the British Antarctic Survey who first told me the story of John Rae, the Orcadian doctor and explorer.

Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain in Orphir in 1813. He qualified as a surgeon in Edinburgh and in 1833 left Scotland to work in Canada, first as a ship’s surgeon on board the Prince of Wales, and then in Moose Factory for the Hudson Bay Company, where he was to stay for 10 years.

Rae, in contrast to most of his white contemporaries, respected the First Nation people, learned vital skills from them and dressed like them to face the winter cold. From the Cree he learned how to make snowshoes and hunt caribou, and from the Inuit how to build snow shelters.

Rae was asked by the Hudson Bay Company to complete the mapping of the Arctic coast. He was a remarkable athlete – in one two-month period he covered 1200 miles on foot – and he spent whole winters in the far north. His expeditions filled many gaps and confirmed the existence of the North West Passage.

In 1848 Rae was asked to help search for the men of Lord Franklin’s expedition. He learnt from the Inuit that 40 white men had starved to death and had resorted to cannibalism in their final days. However when his report reached London, it led to an outcry. As my friend says, ‘Royal Navy chaps don’t eat each other’. Or as Charles Dickens put it, no white man should believe the Inuit who were ‘savages and liars’.

Later expeditions proved Rae and the Inuit right. However by then Rae was thoroughly discredited and his own discovery of the North West Passage was attributed to Franklin. His achievements were written out of history. My friend suggested that, as Franklin already had songs to his name, I might like to write a tribute to a true hero of the floes. I hope the song does him justice.

A review of 2016

Looking back, 2016 has been a rum old year. Politically we’ve had to endure Brexit while the rest of the world has had to endure Putin, Erdogan, Assad and now the prospect of Trump. Musically we have lost Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, two of my musical touchstones, as well as Prince, George Michael and a host of others. And personally, we have lost two good friends, people we won’t be able to replace.

So what was good about the year? Well, ironically, my favourite album of the year was David Bowie’s ‘Black Star’, released a couple of days before he died. Indeed, it has replaced Heroes as my favourite of all Bowie albums. As with all his best work, it’s challenging, innovative and musically stunning. Above all, it’s one of those rare albums where we start with Track 1 and do nothing else until we have reached the end. There has also been good music from Bon Iver, whose third album ’22, A Million’ is another challenging but satisfying listen. Try this. ‘A Moon-shaped Pool’ from Radiohead is also rather good and I enjoyed the debut album from Lanterns on the Lake. We were also able to see a concert from my favourite flamenco guitarist, Vicente Amigo.

I’ve been musically busy as well. My sixth album. ‘The Hills of Arran’ attracted some nice reviews and I also produced videos of the two Spanish-flavoured songs: ‘Andalucia‘ and ‘Santa Maria‘. Finally, there’s a live band version of ‘Ashes and rust’. As well as my usual gigs in the region I also played four small festivals, a gig at the 12 Bar Club and a set in support of Philip Henry and Hannah Martin in the Peak District. And I have been writing lots of new material, some of which we will do on Jan 27th.

Thankyou for your support last year, and here’s wishing you all the very best for the year to come.

Andalucia and Santa Maria

This year it is 40 years since my love affair with Andalucia and its music began. In the summer of 1976 my friend Gordon and I spent six weeks in and around Granada, camping in the Alpujaras and in Motril on the coast, trekking across the Sierra Nevada and exploring the city that was to become one of my very favourite places. I then spent a couple of weeks travelling around Andalucia with another friend, Mike, before I set off alone to cross North Africa and return through Italy. A few years later I returned with Isabelle and we met a flamenco troupe who introduced us to the music of Camarón de la Isla, and notably his remarkable album La Leyenda del Tiempo, generally regarded as a turning point for flamenco and a key moment in reclaiming the music from Franco’s regime.

Since then we have returned on several occasions, most recently two years ago when we visited El Puerto de Santa Maria on the Bahia de Cadiz (staying with our friends Magi and John, alias Zig and Zag), Sevilla (where we caught up with Miguel whose flamenco guitar playing on ‘Andalucia’ is stunning), Cordoba and of course Granada.

My song, Andalucia, was produced by Miguel Moreno who also added additional guitars.:

MezquitaThe video was filmed by John Meed and Isabelle Fournier, including a live performance at the fringe of Folk on the Pier in Cromer in 2016, as well as footage of the Mezquita in Córdoba (right)…

…and the Alhambra in Granada (below).

Alhambra

Our stay in El Puerto resulted in my song Santa Maria and I have now been able to combine film by Roger Murfitt of a live performance of the song with some of the photos and videos of the town that Magi kindly gave me. Here is the the resulting video:

Two minutes in there is an example of the wonderful flamenco baile (dance), we believe from Cadiz-born bailora Begoña Arce, filmed at the peña Tomás el Nitri in El Puerto. The song loosely uses the rhythm of the flamenco tangos – rather different from the Argentinan dance. There’s a more authentic tangos from Camarón himself here (also about the Bahia de Cadiz with a mention of El Puerto towards the end).

The 12 Bar Club

We played a one-hour set at the 12 Bar Cub in its new home of 203 Holloway Road, London N7 8DL on January 31st.

John_Tara_12Bar_hires

The 12 Bar Club is a legendary venue. The original club was founded in Denmark Street in 1994. Jeff Buckley played an impromptu set there before the launch of his debut album Grace. Adele, Martha Wainwright, Joanna Newsom and KT Tunstall all played their first London dates there. Other people who have played the club include Bert Jansch, Nick Harper, The Albion Band, Steve Jones, Boo Hewerdine, Damien Rice, Regina Spektor, The Libertines, Pete Doherty, Keane, Seasick Steve and Gordon Giltrap. When it was threatened with closure more than 25,000 people, including Pete Townshend and Marc Almond signed a petition to keep the club.

The club relocated from Denmark Street to the Holloway Road in 2015 and continued to offer live music most nights, though sadly this venue ceased trading just two days after we played there.

New album The Hills of Arran

My sixth album The Hills of Arran is now available. People who have already had a chance to listen have said ‘the new album is superb’, ‘beautiful and impressively varied in genre and production style’, ‘the more I hear the songs the more enjoyable they are’ and ‘hauntingly beautiful’. A critic from Rock Society has said:

‘The evocative and delicate acoustic performances are a delightful and blessed relief from the current trend for over-produced, overloaded layers of music. A breath of fresh, mellow and unpretentious folk air.’

Cambridge News ran a feature about one of the songs, White crosses. We launched the album at CB2 in Cambridge on Saturday December 5th.

The album was co-produced by Rhys Wilson, who also plays piano and additional guitars. The full track listing is:

1   The Hills of Arran
2   Andalucia
3   Chasing shadows
4   Replacement valve
5   White crosses
6   Remember me?
7   Beautiful people
8   Ashes and rust
9   Santa Maria
10 Muddling through
11 Heroes of the floes
12 The lives of others

Walking in the Hills of Arran

Where no-one was was where my world was stilled
Into hills that hung behind the lasting water (Alastair Reid, ‘Isle of Arran’)

The Hills of Arran is the title track of my next album, due for release on December 5th with a launch event at CB2 in Cambridge that evening. We needed a photo shoot for the cover and some film for the video. We had never been to Arran, and it came with high recommendations, especially from my grandparents. All good reasons to visit the island that is described as ‘Scotland in miniature’.

Arran2Our ferry had brought us into Lochranza the day before, and we had stayed just outside Blackwaterfoot on the western coast.

The weather forecast for our first full day was poor, so we decided on a valley walk up Glenrosa rather than risking rain and strong winds on the hills. In the event the rain held off for the morning and we rambled up a classic glacial valley with Goatfell, Arran’s highest peak, on our right.

Arran4

Half way up the valley, the first of two remarkable encounters with wild Arran took place. Two golden eagles soared into view and one came quite close to us as three buzzards also appeared. For a while they soared just under Goatfell together, and then suddenly the eagle tumbled earthwards and seized one of the buzzards by the talons. The buzzard managed to fly off a couple of times but each time the eagle went for it again. The two went to ground and as neither bird flew off again we could only assume that a young and very inexperienced buzzard had become the eagle’s lunch.

After our own rather more vegetarian picnic the rain began, the hills did indeed ‘hang behind the lasting water’ and we turned back, well wet by the time we reached the car, but satisfied to be back in the Scottish hills. That evening we watched the rain pile in across Kilbrannan Sound from Kintyre.

Arran_stonesThe next day we walked along the beach out towards Drumadoon Point, scattering oystercatchers as yet more showers built over the mainland. We continued on to the remarkable stone circles of Machrie Moor – Stonehenge without the crowds, the fences or the A303 and all the more magical for that.

For our final day the weather at last settled down a little. We set off from Thundergay up the hillside towards the delightful Coire Fhionn Lochan.

About half way to the lochan a group of red deer hinds were silhouetted against the distant Sound of Bute.

Red deer

Clouds still hung around the hilltops as we reached the lake, Arran1and it would be some time before the sun timidly appeared. Inspired, we set off up the steep slope of Meall Biorach, reaching the first summit just as the mist rolled away from the surrounding hills. As the sun steadily grew in strength, we carried on up Meall Donn, to be treated to magnificent views across the Arran hills and the surrounding mainland.

An eagle flew past us, hugging the ground as it reached a nearby pass before descending into Glen Catacol towards Loch Tanna.

Arran5Heading down towards the other side of the lake we heard a red deer stag roaring and watched as his herd moved up the hill opposite. The early evening light showed the lochan in its full glory.

We were taking a short break walking back down from the lochan when our second remarkable encounter with wild Arran took place. A young meadow pipit flew under our legs and a moment later there was a rush of wind as a female merlin aborted her dive on the pipit. The pipit fluttered out two or three times and each time the merlin attacked again. Eventually another walker went by and the pipit flew off using him as cover. I saw the merlin fly off, apparently with empty talons. We appeared to have saved the pipit but left the merlin hungry.

The following morning we left Arran with heavy hearts. The filming was successful, though, and I’ll post a link to the video as soon as it is available!

Arran3

Concerts with French choir Un Choeur pour Boala

This July we welcomed some very special visitors from Cognac in France. Un Choeur pour Boala (a choir for Boala) stayed with us from July 11th to 18th, and we played three concerts together.

We began on Sunday July 12th in Felsham church, Suffolk, as part of their patronal festival. Here we are singing Thesalonika:

Boala_Felsham

We moved on the following evening to the delightful Kettlebaston church, also in Suffolk:

Boala_Kettlebaston

John_TaraAnd on Friday July 17th at 7.45pm we rounded things off in the Friends Meeting House, 91–93 Hartington Grove, Cambridge CB1 7UB.

I first sang with the choir in July 2011 when they invited me to join them for a concert in the Mynydd Seion Chapel in Abergele in North Wales. Here is a rough recording of us singing Thesalonika together on that occasion:

affiche_generiqueThe choir had formed two years earlier when ten singers from the Cognac Conservatoire de Musique gave a concert in Boala. Moved by the welcome and kindness of the people, they decided to continue singing as a choir in order to raise money for the villages. The money raised from the three concerts will go to the charity Les Amis de Boala which supports projects in the rural community.

The choir’s repertoire includes songs from across the world in a variety of languages and styles which range from traditional Catalan or Jewish pieces to the music of the Beatles and George Gershwin.

Boala is a rural community in Burkino Faso, made up of 16 villages with about 25,000 inhabitants about 150 km north east of Ouagadougou. For a long time it has had very little contact with the outside world. As a result it has kept alive its traditional way of life, its dress, crafts (pottery, basket weaving and ironwork), customs and animist religion. They wish to have more contact with the outside world while keeping their traditions alive and enabling young people to stay in the area.

boala-c0cd9

Cambridge Folk Club’s 50th anniversary

This weekend has seen the celebrations of Cambridge Folk Club’s 50th anniversary. And a very fine weekend it has been.

Back in 1965 the Folk Club got off to an inspired start by inviting a young Paul Simon to play, just as he was releasing his first single, ‘I am a rock’. Since then many of the greats of the folk world have graced the stage, including Show of Hands, Ralph McTell and Waterson Carthy.

However, the club has above all supported local musicians and this was the focus of the weekend’s celebrations. The Friday night got off to a remarkable start with the Inspiration session, where 10 local songwriters – Tom Conway, Liz Cotton, Paul Goodwin, Kevin Hunt, Stella Hensley and Chris Newman, Tony Phillips, Lizzie J. Taylor, Red Velvet and Richard Wildman, and myself – each performed songs by artists who had influenced their own writing, together with their own songs that had resulted from that inspiration. I played Michael Chapman’s Postcards of Scarborough and Clarendon Road in the first half, and Jacque Brel’s The Devil (ca va) and Rue Mouffetard in the second half. As Jim Schwabe from the club said when wrapping up the evening there was not a bad song all night – the quality of the music and the atmosphere through the evening made for one of the best live events I have seen in many years.

A marathon session on the Saturday from 11am to well after 11pm saw 25 local bands and musicians take the stage and illustrate the broad swathe of music that the club chooses to call folk – from traditional songs through country, bluegrass, jazz, blues, rock and pop to covers of The Who! We came during the afternoon – when there was already a packed house – and again in the evening where we were delighted to see our good friends Red House Radio reform for a one-off gig after a break of three years, and were simply blown away by Myke Clifford’s Bophouse Blues.

On a personal level, it has left me reflecting on the huge amount of support the club has given me since I got back into playing music seriously 15 years ago. As they have done with so many other people they nurtured me through the nerves, the inexperience and the false starts of those early days, and have continued to encourage me, even inviting me to support Waterson Carthy. My gigs there remain among the very best and most enjoyable that I play. But above all it is the warmth and friendliness of the club committee that make it one of the very best venues in the country. Thankyou all.